Fiction

2016

‘The Finch’s Wedding and the Hive That Sings’ in Clockwork Phoenix 5 (ed. Mike Allen, Mythic Delirium). In the Cotillion, the Song is all. A commander bargains with an oracle for favorable omens, but her bid for war is complicated by that most difficult of all battles: marriage negotiation between the powerful. Poly marriage, politics, a theocracy of birds and music. Think WH40K, but queer and intersectional. 7,200 words.

‘That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall’ in Clarkesworld Magazine. In a not-too-far future, the geopolitical map has changed irrevocably and war has become the default. A retired soldier has spent years in Ayutthaya, avoiding her former duties, until they catch up in the shape of her commander and her AI child. Ghost in the Shell meet post-colonialism in Thailand meet lesbian soldiers. 5,800 words.

‘In Them the Stars Open Like Doors’ in Flesh: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (ed. Cassandra Khaw and Angeline Woon, Buku Fixi). In suburban Thailand, a woman gives birth, over and over, to galaxies. Soon, they will kill her. Magic realism. 2,600 words.

‘Dream Command’ on Harlot Media. Soldier women in a dangerous game. Military SF thriller in the near future, with a kinky queer bent (graphic sex). 6,700 words.

‘The Beast at the End of Time’ in Apex Magazine. As the world marches toward the guillotine of its finale, a beast wakes and a woman heavy with her mothers’ legacy seeks to repair humanity’s last refuge. A bit Jekyll-Hyde, a bit Beauty and the Beast circa nanomachine apocalypse, all lesbian. 4,000 words.

2015

‘The Occidental Bride’ in Clarkesworld Magazine. Heilui, a Hong Kong anthropologist, buys an ex-mafia Finnish bride. Her new wife Kerttu must learn to adapt to civilian life in an unfamiliar land, an unfamiliar culture… and perhaps together the two of them will catch the terrorist behind the war that sank Europe. 6,700 words.

‘The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Yin Sanhi is the woman who foments and leads revolutions, knowing always that she’s one step from her fall – and Empress Narasorn proves her equal. Epic fantasy in 6,000 words.

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Heritage and ‘genre literacy’

A while back there was an old man yelling at clouds to the tune of ‘If you haven’t read this arbitrary set of dead white men who was publishing fifty to two hundred years ago then your writing is worth nothing because you haven’t read your forebears and you’ll just be retreading them, and that makes you a bad writer‘.

I tweeted, snarkily, ‘Nah, anything published before 2000 was stylistically embarrassing and out of touch.’ A different white old man, offended, tweeted that I was destroying heritage. (Heritage of… what? Heritage relevant and important to… whom? Why assume it’s relevant or important to me? Is this seriously someone’s cultural identity? Anyway, I just set all the books published before 2000 on fire with the power of my mind. You’re welcome! Except the ones I like, those can stay.)

The point really isn’t these two specific old white men, or the specific younger white people – on a different occasion – claiming that you should read SFF you don’t care for so you can stay… ‘genre-literate’. Not my word! You are also not allowed to think that which you don’t care for is terrible, by the way. It won awards. It sold lots of copies. Thus Dan Brown’s literary value has been proven unassailable, and also that of EL James.

If you tell any of these people that they have to  read The Ramayana in Sanskrit, or every set of Man Booker and SEA Write winners/nominees from the last ten years, or a good chunk of the western literary canon – if you tell them that, without reading these, you would dismiss them as bad and illiterate writers, they would flip out and never stop.

Let’s quote Vajra (bolding mine).

A big part of postcolonial outsider syndrome is, I think, the shear between mediated and real-world relationships. When so much of US/UK SF culture is based around IRL activity, and when those of us on the outside of it can only interact with the online parts, these very different senses of “community” grind painfully against each other. There’s a wobble, an instability in this relationship that is only exacerbated every time that this grinding churns out the kind of wilful solipsisms that insist that there is no outside; or that the outside is all the same; or that the outside doesn’t matter except insofar as it will conform to and mirror the inside; or that the outsider must acculturate, must assimilate. And by that I don’t mean that being asked to feel like an outsider makes me doubt myself as a writer: rather, it makes me doubt the credibility of the systems and institutions that operate to evoke and enforce that feeling. It’s a reminder of the illegitimacy of the urge to assimilate.

So I didn’t go to Clarion, but I also don’t want to go to Clarion, or to conventions, or to participate in either lit culture or nerd culture. It’s entirely possible that I might never actually meet any of the people in US/UK SF that I know online, and I’m okay with that. Partly for the same reasons that I don’t generally go to similar things in Colombo either (i.e., mostly that I don’t like going to things), but also because I’ve been very lucky. I’m a second-generation writer, born to the trade—I was editing copy in two languages for my father’s novels before I reached my teens, and I learned how to set type in a composing stick for old-school letterpress printing before I learned to type on a typewriter. A fluke, the whole thing, just a total Paralichthys dentatus. Which is why I don’t mean any of this to come across as complaining about being on the outside of things. The opposite is true: I’m painfully aware of just how lucky I am. But not everybody in my position is going to be lucky enough to make this tradeoff. Most other new writers from South Asia aren’t going to have this kind of background or the advantage of the confidence it brings. That’s why it’s important to look closely at the systems in place and point out as many ways to deal with them as we can.

One of those ways, obviously, is what J is talking about. Break on through to the other side. Join in. Do the thing. Another way is mine: be unreasonably lucky and stay mostly in your head.

What I’d actually like to see more of in the world, though, what I think would be best, is a third way, which is that those of us on its outside should abandon the Dyson sphere: not just the metaphor, I mean, but the politics and the affect that it evokes. Perhaps it’s possible to disengage a little more from the imperial hub and its ultimately parochial preoccupations. The purpose of imperial hubs in culture is also distraction. Instead, perhaps we could help create a new mangrove SF, a mongrel SF with many roots, a rhizome to live in. Look at Omenana as an example, or Truancy, or Juggernaut’s SF department under Indra Das. There is an English-language SF, in short fiction no less, fully contemporary, aimed at an international readership, whose roots are firmly in what used be the outside. This is important. This is good, for everyone.

Not to belabor the obvious, but: when you claim ‘genre literacy’ (getting real close to ‘fake geek girl’, isn’t it) and you really only mean – and think – of yourself, and when ‘you’ happens to be a white American or a white Brit, and what you think of as essential to your heritage and ‘literacy’ also happens to be really white, really American or British… and you seem unable to grasp that there are other traditions, other histories, and other lines of media consumption? Uh-huh. Imagine: some of us didn’t grow up on whatever it is that forms the bulk of your childhood nostalgia. We are not obliged to respect your childhood nostalgia. Some of us try to decolonize our heads. That is a thing. Stop being presumptuous.

So here is something absolutist:

Good writers forge their personal canon aggressively. They draw on a variety of media and a range of multinational influences.

Good writers know what is good, and what is bad, and they are honest to themselves and to their writing.

Good writers don’t read or write by committee.

Writing about MFAs in creative writing, a round-up

Reading pieces on MFAs in creative writing is my new hobby. Whether for or against, the pieces are mostly absurd, fatally earnest, frequently myopic. There’s an endless well of it! This is the most beautiful, most harmless misery tourism, and I derive a lot of anthropological enjoyment from it – look at these strange … rituals! Look at their savage infighting and their idolatry of, I don’t know, naked white corpses at least a couple centuries old? Here are some of my favorites. Most of these are pretty old, but entertainment is evergreen.

ON BLOWING MY LOAD: THOUGHTS FROM INSIDE THE MFA PONZI SCHEME belongs absolutely to the category of fatally earnest, bordering on cultish, and very wishy-washy in the end. Read the comments; it’s funny.

In Get a Real Degree, Elif Batuman drops this amazing chunk of full-on, shame-free, undisguised xenophobia and racism and whatever this is.

I should state up front that I am not a fan of programme fiction. Basically, I feel about it as towards new fiction from a developing nation with no literary tradition: I recognise that it has anthropological interest, and is compelling to those whose experience it describes, but I probably wouldn’t read it for fun. Moreover, if I wanted to read literature from the developing world, I would go ahead and read literature from the developing world. At least that way I’d learn something about some less privileged culture – about a less privileged culture that some people were actually born into, as opposed to one that they opted into by enrolling in an MFA programme.

To which the author of the book she reviewed responded:

I’m impressed with Batuman’s willingness to speak so clearly as a cultural conservative, reanimating a whole herd of dead horses from the 1980s Culture Wars, when the right began a long, twilight struggle against the “tenured radicals” of the university. To reduce whole swaths of American literature to an expression of “sociopolitical grievance”; to condescend so witheringly, as Batuman does in her review, to the literature of “developing nations” — these sorts of rhetorical moves are strangely anachronistic, not to mention ill-informed, and would embarrass even the less than politically correct among us a little bit, were we called upon to justify them. It’s not that we believe that the airing of socio-political grievances is, in itself, likely to produce a good novel. It’s that, when you actually take the time to read a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, you find something a lot more complicated and compelling than Batuman’s snarky slurs would imply. One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter.

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One was the big one of 2015, it looks like. It includes gems that could have come out of Reddit, like:

Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more. One student, having finished his assigned books early, asked me to assign him three big novels for the period between semesters.Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him, almost as a joke. He read all three and submitted an extra-credit essay, too. That guy was the Real Deal.

That isn’t the part that offended people though; I think it was this – ‘The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.’ One of his former students responds: I Was the MFA Student Who Made Ryan Boudinot Cry. It wasn’t Boudinot’s joke about child abuse that made him mad though, that part was fine and the more tasteless a joke the better; it was Boudinot disparaging the MFA industry, which is ‘the coolest tribe I’ve ever belonged to. And Ryan [Boudinot] was a part of that tribe. Now he has alienated himself from it’. You begin to see, I hope, what I mean as to ‘fatally earnest’.

(Another response piece has a creative writing instructor who says – I paraphrase – ‘I don’t assume I know what talent looks like. My students are better off for it.’ Okay, well, that’s certainly an approach!)

Back to more fatally earnest, You Are a Young Writer is a bit like – well, I would have said it was a parody, but I don’t think it is because I’ve seen people write about this sort of thing in exactly this tone, nearly in the same words – as I said, these things are evergreen.

You apply to a number of MFAs.

You are rejected by a number of MFAs, and waitlisted by one, and offered partial aid by another, and by another you are offered a full tuition fellowship in exchange for teaching and hot damn does this offer has you feeling on top of things you didn’t know had tops to feel on top of. You move to the state the school is in. Classes start: you read recklessly and you write ravenously, you write in forms and in modes that are new to you, and you’re astonished, and you for the first time teach, you’re a student with students, and you make friends with your fellow writers, friends from the East Coast and the West Coast and the Southwest and the South and the Midwest, you’re from the Midwest, with your Midwestern friends you disagree on what constitutes the Midwest, and with everyone else you altogether disagree on what constitutes writing and poetry and story and essay and art, and constitution, and you attend and give readings, and you work for a literary magazine, and on funding you travel to conferences, and you play pool and darts and poker and you drink beers and boozes and smoke cigarettes and cigars and you do some drugs maybe and you love, you love hard, you love the friends you share so much with, and yes, you make some rather wretched mistakes, some shameful blunders, and maybe there’s some rivalry and jealousy but you stay away from the circles of spite, the circles that spin on the talk that sinks community, and instead you write, and in your last year you write a book.

You are a young writer about to graduate with a graduate degree.

[…]

And maybe at PhD you try to get ahold of What’s Next, but What’s Next is busy, and a new professor, friend, or mentor says, I’ll put you two in touch, and it happens, you get a coffee in a crowded coffee shop with What’s Next, but What’s Next won’t look at you, What’s Next just stares over your shoulder, and you yell, Do I get my PhD and get a position somewhere or do I get my PhD and never get a position anywhere and get some other job somewhere or does a position open at one of the schools I adjuncted at and I get it and then it ends and it’s back to what I just said or do I get a book published and if I get a book published do I need my PhD!

No one in the coffee shop reacts to your yelling. Not even you.

You feel done, but you know you aren’t.

What’s Next? says What’s Next, not looking at you.

You drink your coffee. You don’t know.

You say, You don’t know.

What’s Next says, You are a young writer. Write.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi

There’s a certain kind of fiction, usually contemporary or near-future, written by white American women (but, hashtag, not all white American women!). It has a particular tone and interest, and the setting tends to be extremely provincial, to the point that reading such fiction feels like reading someone – and this applies to Americans in general, whether they’re turning out nonfiction or otherwise – who’s never set foot outside their own house but who believes their experiences are nevertheless relevant and universally compelling. The focus is on, vaguely, the human condition though really the writers are most interested in whimsy and sentiment. It’s sort of literary, in a workshop kind of way, and any gestures it makes at progressiveness are palliative rather than radical. I find this universally draining to read. As in it literally drains my will to read, and also to live. It’s not offensive (on the contrary it’s anodyne). It’s not bad. Occasionally it shows promise. I don’t retain anything about it, not what it has to say (on the rare event it has any) or characters or setting (interchangeably American) or the prose. I expect it is very nice to read for others who share the mindset and life experiences and cultural background radiation with the writers. People who like that sort of thing will find it the sort of thing…

When I first read the final story in What is Not Yours is Not Yours, it seemed worryingly like that sort of thing. It’s not, exactly; maybe this collection has more in common with Kuzhali Manickavel than its white American female counterparts. I have to preface that I like the collection as a whole a great deal before I say that this is that sort of thing, but done well: without the provincial narcissism, the limitation of thoughts and images. It’s magic-realist and whimsical, and it’s pretty and airy, and it’s very easy to read. It improves you literary constitution, if you have one of those. The stories are interrelated, but in an effortless rather than labored way. There is a leitmotif – keys, access – but this is, again, nothing labored; rather it is effortlessly arrived at. There is an incredible ease to the prose, the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole. It’s hard to find anything to criticize, or even particularly dislike. I enjoyed my time with it.

SEÑORA LUCY was a painter with eyes like daybreak. Like Montse, she wore a key on a chain around her neck, but unlike Montse she told people that she was fifty years old and gave them looks that dared them to say she was in good condition for her age. (Señora Lucy was actually thirty-five, only five years older than Montse. One of the housemaids had overheard a gallery curator begging her to stop telling people she was fifty. The Señora had replied that she’d recently attended the exhibitions of some of her colleagues and now wished to discover whether fifty-year-old men in her field were treated with reverence because they were fifty or for some other reason.) Aside from this the housemaids were somewhat disappointed with Señora Lucy. They expected their resident artist to lounge about in scarlet pajamas, drink cocktails for breakfast, and entertain dashing rascals and fragrant sirens. But Señora Lucy kept office hours. Merce, her maid of all work, tried to defend her by alleging that the Señora drank her morning coffee out of a vase, but nobody found this credible.

That’s from my favorite in the collection, the opening story ‘books and roses’, which – setting the tone for What is Not Yours is Not Yours – is one part fairytale, fully a love story (lesbian, in particular). Unlike the palliative progressiveness – the bland, lazy ‘diversity’ – of that sort of thing, this is confident in itself and its presentation of protagonists who are black, brown, queer. You can’t hear the author wringing her hands over how to describe black skin or Indian girls, because there’s no hand-wringing. There’s nothing self-conscious about most of it, though I’d say it opens strongly and toward the end begins the process of petering out. ‘dornička and the st. martin’s day goose’ is extremely typical for what it is, aesthetically and thematically quite safe, a fairytale that moves and concludes like a fairytale. (We come back to ‘people who like this sort of thing…’ To a lesser extent, ‘drownings’ is subjected to the same structure and tone.) Meantime, ‘“sorry” doesn’t sweeten her tea’ or ‘is your blood as red as this?’ or ‘presence’ are peculiarly themselves, difficult to pin down, and very good.

I do much prefer Manickavel’s short fiction, having said that, because Manickavel leaves more lasting impressions on me than this particular Oyeyemi (and I enjoy Oyeyemi’s novels, I mean). Maybe it’d be different on reread – I’m not in a habit of rereading by and large; most likely it would. I wish I’d liked it more or that it’d made more of a mark on my brain, or that I felt more strongly about it.

(As an update, what do you know, Nina Allan had a similar response I did to this book.)

This collection is as rich and strange as any you are likely to find. It seethes with invention and originality, and yet I came away from it confounded by how little these stories affected me on any level other than the merely cerebral. My mind was left cluttered with images and metaphors, and yet I seemed unable to remember a single one of the stories distinctly, set apart from the bigarrure of its fellows. Each story is about many things—yet none of them are truly about anything. Each contains a kernel of outrageous beauty or glorious transgression—the guerrilla book swap in “a brief history of the homely wench society,” the audacious lie told by Freddy about Ched and Tyche in “freddy barrandov checks . . . in?,” the bizarre act of deception perpetrated by the grandmother against the wolf-beast in “dornicka and the st martin’s day goose”—which renders these tales exhilarating in their bombast and totally unlike any other story you might read on any given day. Yet for me at least they felt lacking in any emotional resonance whatsoever. There are several leitmotifs—keys, roses, puppets—running through the core of this collection that serve as loose thematic binders, but their importance feels circumstantial rather than being freighted with any deep meaning, and the same might easily be said of the recurrence of various characters from one story to another. These are stories that never stay still, which is perhaps the reason they never acquire any meaningful depth.

I admire this book a great deal, but I don’t really like it much, and I say this as someone who counts Oyeyemi among her favourite authors. It’s not her, it’s me. Your mileage may vary.


Some reviews of this collection that amused me and which I don’t agree or disagree with in any particular way. From Chicago Tribune, ‘A writer’s writer (I first heard her name from Kelly Link, who cited Oyeyemi as a favorite at a book festival panel), she spent all of one semester in an M.F.A. program before bolting — perhaps wisely intuiting that her writing was better off with its weirdness fully intact, and fully hers. Thank goodness, because the nine stories in this collection feel idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.’ (The phrase ‘a writer’s writer’ is very apt and may or may not be associated with a certain dynamic that the founder of Bookslut mentions when she talked about shutting down Bookslut.)

Aaron Bady: ‘The same could be said of Oyeyemi’s writing. In struggling to describe her work—and it is a struggle—book reviewers often praise her mastery of craft. NPR declared her new novel What is Not Yours is Not Yours “flawless,” a “masterpiece,” and The New York Times describes her as a master author who “expertly melds the everyday, the fantastic and the eternal.” But I would praise her work in almost exactly the opposite terms. Oyeyemi’s fascination is with the flaws that make us human—and the dreams through which we approach our own brokenness—and so, her stories are twisted and imperfect. As another reviewer observed, they are “idiosyncratic in a way that is hard to imagine surviving a workshop setting.” Like dreams, her books are too odd to be good, too terrible to be loved, and too broken to be masterpieces. (In this, she has a lot in common with Silvina Ocampo, and much of Oyeyemi’s introduction to last year’s collection of Ocampo’s fiction could read as a description of her own aesthetic.)’

(He also says, ‘Dreams are the return of everything our daytime brain has worked to ignore. Dreams are the uncanny and the forbidden’ which is exactly the kind of thing a reviewer adds as filler and rather tautological. I suppose you could technically call it a novel – a mosaic novel to be exact – but to me it’s very much a collection; YMMV. It’s interesting how even reviewers who review for big venues take a certain view of workshops.)

The Problem of Harmony

Right from the start I get the distinct impression that Harmony takes a lot of cues from Urobuchi. The basic premise, as written by Project Itoh, already has a great deal in common with – what else – Psycho-Pass: a futuristic dystopia where the government has become a very literal nanny state that monitors its citizens’ mental and physical wellness, where everyone is online all the time, and machines (nano or otherwise) report their condition to a central state server. Where Psycho-Pass is most concerned with citizens’ moral character, Harmony puts a greater emphasis on health: in this future Earth, people do not need to suffer from illness, old age, and everyone is a loving and selfless citizen. There is no poverty, as far as territories controlled by the World Health Organization are concerned. The always-on augmented reality lens guides every citizen to make responsible dietary and health choices. All medical care appears to be free and managed by the state.

This could have been stunning, if not for the cockroach in the soup, so to speak.

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Code Geass: Akito the Exiled, finale

It only took five episodes to finally discover what Leila’s geass is. I was calling it as ‘the power to make people nicer’ (probably by erasing their personality and replacing it with something Leila approves); the actual thing isn’t quite, and it ends up pretty odd, convoluted, and slightly incomprehensible.

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First impressions: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

So, in a word, it’s really bad. I’m not sure I have watched anything this bad in quite sometime. You’ll also get the sense that you’ve seen this before. You can recognize the weapon design right away – steam, buckles, cables, it’s all heavily based on the 3D gear from AoT. 

The premise: the lands have been overrun by monsters and humans build ‘stations’ – cities with giant walls – to keep safe. Within the first episode, the walls have been breached and monsters pour in. Stop me if this sounds… familiar.

Oh, the girl in the steampunk miniskirt – her name is Mumei – is twelve.

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Harlot Stories

harlot

As per this letter from the editor, I’m going to co-edit the fiction section at Harlot Media along with Michon Neal. The house brand slants toward kinky, queer, sexy and politically incisive. As far as genre goes, noir, mystery, contemporary fantasy, magic realism, and cyberpunk would all be welcome. It doesn’t have to be erotica or focused on romance or even centrally kinky, but it can be. Secondary-world fantasy will be a hard sell. (I personally don’t mind it, but it doesn’t quite go with the site’s general tone.) Steampunk – especially Victoriana – is also a hard sell.

Length: 1500-6000 words. Anything longer than 2000 words will be serialized. Pay is negotiable and starts at a token rate (sorry!), and scales with length.

How to pitch: @ me on twitter and make sure I can DM you, and we’ll take it from there. If you have a completed story, that’s what I will want to look at. If you only have a pitch, send me the pitch and direct me to a sample of your writing – your bibliography or whatever else is available. I do prefer a completed story submission because I don’t want to say yes to your pitch and make you write a new story only for me to reject it (I will reject a lot of things).

Generally, I have a preference for writers who are queer or of color or both. #ownvoices is great. This isn’t a romance publication so I don’t require a happily-ever-after/happy-for-now ending, but I am not interested in straight writers sending in queer tragedy. I like style and dislike the idea that ‘style’ and ‘plot’ are somehow separate.

Submissions should be in .RTF, .DOC, or .DOCX. PDFs are not acceptable and never will be. At the moment, I don’t have a deadline for closing to submissions because this is still very new, though I do have a particular amount of inventory in mind. We’ll see and I will update this post as things transpire.